The Southcentral Test Case

Exploring multiple drivers of change on the Kenai Peninsula

The Kenai Peninsula in Southcentral Alaska is characterized by its proximity and road connection to Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city with 291,800 residents, and by its physiographic, ecological, cultural, and economic diversity. The Kenai is not subject to a single dominant driver of change, but rather exemplifies the interactions of multiple drivers of change and their effects – creating what has been termed a complex or “messy” social-ecological system. These drivers include global and regional temperature and precipitation changes; salmon population fluctuations; a recent tourism downturn; recreational pressure from Anchorage; shrinking wetlands and successional change; and forest fire dynamics.

The Kenai River watershed, the major river system on the Kenai Peninsula, provides a clear and constrained test case of interactive drivers of change and their effects on communities – specifically, a series of six small- to moderate-sized settlements on the Alaska road system. The watershed provides a central means of connectivity and interaction within social-ecological systems. For example, rivers and lakes are conduits for nutrient and sediment transfer, sustain the aquatic-terrestrial food web, support subsistence, sporting, and commercial salmon fisheries, serve as foci for cultural, recreational, and spiritual activities, and influence people’s values. Salmon has already been identified as a critical linkage among ecosystems, food webs, and fish production in salmonid watershed; we will expand this context to include social and cultural components.

The Southcentral test case will examine interactive drivers and patterns of change in ‘messy’ SES, the effects of these interactions, and the factors contributing to community response and adaptation in six communities on the road network: Kenai, Soldotna, Sterling, Cooper Landing, Moose Pass, and Seward. Primary changes in river hydrology include discharge, water temperature, and sedimentation, while landcover changes include urbanization, resource extraction infrastructure, drying wetlands, and forest fires.

Test case research objectives are:

  • Understand how hydrological and landscape change affect fluvial dynamics, water quality and salmon populations in the Kenai River watershed.
  • Understand the consequences of these changes on the use and values of salmon fisheries for communities in the watershed.
  • Evaluate the capacity of Kenai River communities to perceive, project and respond to anticipated change.

The Southcentral Alaska Science Catalog
Photo courtesy Jonny Armstrong, University of Washington